If you’re someone who suffers panic attack symptoms while sleeping I would hazard a guess that this is having a dramatic impact on not only your sleep, but on your everyday life.
I mean panic attacks can be bad enough during the day, but they are even more terrifying whilst you’re fast asleep.
The very fact that you’re dead to the world, peacefully lying in your bed at night, and then suddenly to be awoken in the midst of a panic attack while completely disorientated will typically feel ten times worse.
These episodes are often called Nocturnal Panic Attacks.
I want to delve a little deeper into nocturnal panic attacks. Let’s look at what they are, the symptoms you should be aware of, what causes panic attacks at night. And what you can do about it.
What Are Panic Attacks?
Panic attacks can best be described as a sudden, intense and unexpected episode of anxiety. You will typically experience a rush of mental and physical symptoms that can be extremely frightening.
In fact, the feeling is so overwhelming that first-time panic attack sufferers may often believe that they are having a heart attack or a nervous breakdown.
A panic attack can come on very quickly, and more often than not, there is no real explanation for what you are going through.
Many people who have previously had a panic attack, or regularly experience them, can feel so scared about when another episode may hit them.
This will simply lead to increased anxiety, increased stress, potential sleep deprivation, and also puts you at a higher risk of further panic attacks.
It’s important to note that panic attacks and anxiety are two separate entities, but they are closely related.
What Are The Symptoms of a Panic Attack?
There are actually far more signs and symptoms of a panic attack than I first realized. During my research into this subject I wasn’t entirely sure what I was going to find, but I can now fully appreciate just how horrifying a panic attack can be.
There are various physical, emotional, and mental symptoms, and for a Doctor to diagnose a panic attack they will generally need to see just four of the following signs.
The Physical Symptoms
The main physical symptoms of a panic attack will include, excessive sweating, which in turn can lead to a fluctuating body temperature, such as feeling hot flashes coming on or suffering from chills.
You may also find yourself trembling or shaking uncontrollably, which could be attributed to the changes in body temperature, or due to the fear factor.
People often say that they feel dizzy, faint, light-headed and unsteady on their feet during an episode.
You may feel discomfort, pain or a tightness in your chest, which can contribute to a shortness of breath, or indeed, making it a real struggle for you to breathe.
This shouldn’t be confused with the heart palpitations you may experience, when your heart is literally racing and pounding ten to the dozen.
Talking of palpitations, these can also occur in the muscles of the body, as well as spasms.
You may also notice a feeling of numbness or tingling, e.g. your fingers and toes may go completely numb, whereas you may feel a tingling sensation around your lips.
With all this possibly going on, let’s not forget the feeling of nausea.
What About The Emotional Symptoms?
The emotional symptoms of a panic attack focus on the fears you are going through at the time.
These can typically involve you having a sudden fear that you’re about to die (this is very common when experiencing panic attacks while sleeping, although a fear of death can also occur frequently during the day as well).
Then there is the fear that you are losing control of your mind and body, or you may even feel as though you are under attack.
All-in-all, these fears feel very real, and it is this that makes it so hard to focus on the fact that they are experiencing a panic attack, and nothing more.
The reason I mention this is that one of the main pieces of advice I have come across when it comes to dealing with a panic attack is to recognize that it is a panic attack, and therefore it can’t actually do you any harm.
Of course, this is far easier said than done, which is why there are various coping techniques to help a sufferer emotionally and mentally, more than physically.
The Mental Symptoms of a Panic Attack
In the main, the mental symptoms appear to be focused around no longer feeling in control. You feel disconnected from yourself, and perhaps also from your surroundings and reality.
That’s a LOT to Deal With
Nocturnal panic attacks usually happen when you’re asleep and you can guarantee that they will wake you up.
The symptoms mentioned above can be experienced both during the day and while you’re asleep at night.
However, when you experience a panic attack while sleeping, the actual episode itself will probably only last a few minutes, but it is likely to take a lot longer to calm down again, and eventually go back to sleep.
In many cases, the fear of having another panic attack can stop you from sleeping, which may lead to insomnia.
What Are The Causes of Nocturnal Panic Attacks?
Having a panic attack during sleep is probably more common than you think.
With that being said, I find it somewhat alarming that even though thousands of hours of research has gone into this subject, there still appears to be no clear-cut reason why people suffer from panic attacks at night.
From my own research into sleep and sleep disorders, I am aware that the brain is still functioning pretty much as normal even while we’re asleep.
I would hazard a guess that some people may believe that the brain somehow “switches off” while we’re sleeping, but nothing could be further from the truth.
This leads me to believe, that in some cases, nocturnal panic attacks may be due to pent-up stress, worries, or anxiety.
You may even be stressed and worried about daytime panic attacks when you go to bed.
The research that there is into panic attacks suggests that I may be correct in this assumption, plus the following are also factors:
- If you experience chronic stress in your everyday life.
- Genetics can play a part in daytime and nighttime panic attacks. So, if you have a parent or a sibling who suffers from panic attacks, there is a greater chance that you may experience them too.
- Other mental issues and conditions can be a trigger for panic attacks, such as anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), etc.
- If you’ve experienced a significant loss including, a relationship ending, or bereavement.
- A chronic illness, e.g. diabetes, heart disease, cancer, etc.
- Certain medications may produce side effects which may lead to panic attacks.
- Withdrawal symptoms from medication, alcohol, or drugs.
- There are even a wide variety of substances which can cause panic attacks. These include caffeine and marijuana.
Panic Attacks at Night
What Should You Do If You Suffer a Panic Attack During Sleep?
As I’ve mentioned, I can only imagine that having a panic attack while you’re asleep is a horrific experience.
You’re not entirely “with it”, you are literally just waking up, and probably feeling dazed and confused, but you appear to be in the midst of a panic attack.
The main advice I have seen given is to not fight the panic attack, as this will usually just make matters worse.
You have to accept what is happening to you, realize that this is a panic attack, and allow it to pass.
Once you’re aware it’s a panic attack, previous experience will tell you that this is just temporary, and that it will soon be over.
You are then told to try and relax (possibly not the easiest thing to do, but we’ll give it a go).
This can typically be attained by trying to get your breathing under control. I would also like to add that you should divert your focus and attention to something else.
My suggestion would be to have something nearby at all times that you can place on your stomach. I’m talking about something like a small book, your phone, a tennis ball, a child’s toy, whatever, it makes no real difference.
Take a deep breath in through your nose for a count of 4 and at the same time watch this object on your stomach rise. Then breath out through your mouth, again for a count of 4, and watch the object fall.
The reason I say to use an object (which I haven’t seen anyone else mention) is I believe it can help in a number of ways.
Firstly, if you are trembling and shaking, it gives you something to do with your hands.
Secondly, by seeing your stomach rise as you breath in, and then fall as you breath out, you will know you are breathing correctly, which can help to calm you.
Finally, you are giving your eyes something to focus on, which can help to deflect attention away from what is actually happening to you.
As I’ve said, I’ve not seen this method mentioned anywhere else, so I could be completely wrong to advise someone to do this.
However, I believe that getting your breathing under control, while keeping your hands busy, and having something to focus on will be extremely effective.
I would also say that you shouldn’t try to go back to sleep immediately after a panic attack, as the fear that it may happen to you again could start to take over your thoughts.
Get up, go to another room, and just do something that you find relaxing (that doesn’t involve unnatural blue light, e.g. TV, smartphone, tablet, kindle, etc.)
Read a physical book or magazine, listen to some calming music, do some yoga, or just continue to focus on your breathing (which is generally what you’re doing during mindfulness meditation anyway).
Once you feel you’re ready then you can go back to bed. Don’t rush it, don’t start worrying about how many hours sleep you’ve got left before you have to get up again. Take your time, calm yourself down, and then you can return to the bedroom.
I was going to discuss how to potentially prevent panic attacks at night, but in truth this can in some way be dealt with by having good sleep hygiene habits, which I have spoken about in detail previously.
There may also be other contributing factors which I have mentioned in the “causes” above.
With that being said, there are certain lifestyle changes you can implement and also natural treatments for panic attacks.
However, if this is a regular occurrence for you, I would always suggest visiting your Doctor and seeking medical advice.